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The Art of Statistics

Learning from Data

By David Spiegelhalter
15-minute read
Audio available
The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter

The Art of Statistics (2019) is a non-technical introduction to the basic concepts of statistical science. Sidelining abstract mathematical analyses in favor of a more human-oriented approach, it explains how statistical science is helping us to answer questions and tell more informative stories. Stepping beyond the numbers, it also considers the role that the media and psychological bias play in the distortion of statistical claims. In these blinks you’ll find the tools and knowledge needed to understand and evaluate these claims.

  • Statistics students looking for a non-technical overview of basic issues
  • Journalists who want to report statistics more accurately
  • Anyone who wants to better evaluate the statistical claims they encounter day-to-day

David Spiegelhalter is a British statistician and statistics communicator. One of the most cited and influential researchers in his field, he serves as the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He was president of the Royal Statistical Society for 2017 and 2018.

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The Art of Statistics

Learning from Data

By David Spiegelhalter
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
Synopsis

The Art of Statistics (2019) is a non-technical introduction to the basic concepts of statistical science. Sidelining abstract mathematical analyses in favor of a more human-oriented approach, it explains how statistical science is helping us to answer questions and tell more informative stories. Stepping beyond the numbers, it also considers the role that the media and psychological bias play in the distortion of statistical claims. In these blinks you’ll find the tools and knowledge needed to understand and evaluate these claims.

Key idea 1 of 9

Statistics can help us answer questions about the world.

Have you ever wondered what statisticians actually do?

To many, statistics is an esoteric branch of mathematics, only slightly more interesting than the others because it makes use of pictures.

But today, the mathematical side of statistics is considered only one component of the discipline. Statistics deals with the entire lifecycle of data, which has five stages which can be summarized by the acronym PPDAC: Problem, Plan, Data, Analysis, and Conclusion. The job of a statistician is to identify a problem, design a plan to solve it, gather the relevant data, analyze it, and interpret an appropriate conclusion.

Let’s illustrate how this process works by considering a real-life case that the author was once involved in: the case of the serial killer Harold Shipman.

With 215 definite victims and 45 probable ones, Harold Shipman was the United Kingdom’s most prolific serial killer. Before his arrest in 1998, he used his position of authority as a doctor to murder many of his elderly patients. His modus operandi was to inject his patients with a lethal dose of morphine and then alter their medical records to make their deaths look natural.

The author was on the task force set up by a public inquiry to determine whether Shipman’s murders could have been detected earlier. This constitutes the first stage of the investigative cycle – the problem.

The next stage – the plan – was to collect information regarding the deaths of Shipman’s patients and compare this with information regarding other patient deaths in the area to see if there were any suspicious incongruities in the data.

The third stage of the cycle – data – involves the actual process of collecting data. In this case, that meant examining hundreds of physical death certificates from 1977 onwards.

In the fourth stage, the data was analyzed, entered into software, and compared using graphs. The analysis brought to light two things: First, Shipman’s practice recorded a much higher number of deaths than average for his area. Second, whereas patient deaths for other general practices were dispersed throughout the day, Shipman’s victims tended to die between 01:00 p.m. and 05:00 p.m. – precisely when Shipman undertook his home visits.

The final stage is the conclusion. The author’s report concluded that if someone had been monitoring the data, Shipman’s activities could have been discovered as early as 1984 – 15 years earlier – which could have saved up to 175 lives.

So, what do statisticians do? They look at patterns in data to solve real-world problems.

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